Harvard Business Review

Seven Truths About Change to Lead By


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 23, 2010 10:30 AM

I call these the Change Agent Bumper Stickers. Here are seven universal sayings that can comfort and guide anyone engaged in the effort of setting a new direction, orchestrating innovation, establishing a culture, or changing behavior.

"Change is a threat when done to me, but an opportunity when done by me." I coined this truth in my book The Change Masters, which compared innovation-friendly and innovation-stifling corporate cultures, and then saw it in operation in personal relationships, too. Resistance is always greatest when change is inflicted on people without their involvement, making the change effort feel oppressive or constraining. If it is possible to tie change to things people already want, and give them a chance to act on their own goals and aspirations, then it is met with more enthusiasm and commitment. In fact, they then seek innovation on their own.

"A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step." Big goals can seem overwhelming. The magnitude of the problem, the difficulty of the solutions, the length of the time horizon, and the number of action items can make change feel so complex that people feel paralyzed, and nothing happens. This saying from China's Chairman Mao is a reminder to get moving. Do something, get started, take the first steps however small they seem, and the journey is underway.

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." A clear destination is necessary to guide the journey of change. Many change efforts falter because of confusion over exactly where everyone is expected to arrive. In the children's book, Alice in Wonderland, Alice, who is confused anyway, asks the Cheshire cat which road she should take. The magical cat responds with this helpful reminder to pin down your goal first. Zoom in on the destination on your mental map, and then zoom out to pick the best path.

"Change a campaign, not a decision." How many people make vows to improve their diet and exercise, then feel so good about the decision that they reward themselves with ice cream and sit down to read a book? CEOs and senior executives make pronouncements about change all the time, and then launch programs that get ignored. To change behavior requires a campaign, with constant communication, tools and materials, milestones, reminders, and rewards.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Baseball legend Yogi Berra was known for oddball sayings that contain gems. There is an aspect of change that involves trial and error. Fear of mistakes can sometimes leave paths unexplored. It's important to seize unexpected opportunities. Some sidelines are dead ends, but others might prove to be faster routes to the goals.

"Everything can look like a failure in the middle." I've observed this so often that I call it Kanter's Law. There are numerous roadblocks, obstacles, and surprises on the journey to change, and each one tempts us to give up. Give up prematurely, and the change effort is automatically a failure. Find a way around the obstacles, perhaps by making some tweaks in the plan, and keep going. Persistence and perseverance are essential to successful innovation and change.

"Be the change you seek to make in the world." Leaders must embody the values and principles they want other people to adopt. This famous Gandhi quote reminds us all—executives with associates, political leaders with followers, or parents with children—that one of the most important tasks is personal: to be a role model, exemplifying the best of what the change is all about.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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